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Peace bid

June 2, 2009

Kurdish rebels have extended a ceasefire with the Turkish government after decades of bloodshed. The Turkish government officially rejected the ceasefire offer, but some politicians have said they're ready to talk.

A PKK rebel warms herself by a fire
The PKK has said it would only engage in self-defenseImage: AP

This week the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for a quarter of a century, announced that it was extending its unilateral ceasefire for a month and a half, from June 1st to July 15th. The PKK has been fighting for an independent state in a conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

The ceasefire announcement follows recent statements from the Turkish government that it had an opportunity to end the conflict.

The PKK said it would only engage in what it called "defensive actions" and called on the Turkish army to end all its major operations against them. One of the rebel leaders also said the rebels had dropped their demand for Kurdish independence and were now seeking local autonomy instead.

A chance to stop the fighting

The Turkish armed forces and government have rejected this ceasefire offer in public, saying that they don't negotiate with terrorists. But government member Suat Kiniklioglu said there is a unique political consensus to resolve the 25 year conflict.

Turkish MP Suat Kiniklioglu
Turkish MP Suat Kiniklioglu said there is a political consensus to end the conflictImage: Hüseyin Hayatsever

"We as a government believe that right now there is an opportunity that could result in a historic solution of this problem," Kiniklioglu said.

"The armed forces, the government and the presidency have a very similar idea of what the problem is. All parties involved understand we should stop young people from taking up arms and going to the mountains to join the PKK."

The Turkish government is expected to announce a series of reforms aimed at improving the lives of Turkish Kurds. But crucially, it is refusing to talk with the country's main pro-Kurdish party, the DTP. The DTP crushed the governing AK party in last March's local elections.

Kurdish politicians respond

The government has to face up to reality, said Osman Baydemir, the DTP mayor of Diyarbakir, the main city in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast.

"Everybody should respect the result of the peoples' votes," Baydemir said. "This brings a big opportunity for the DTP to help in the laying down of weapons and bringing a peaceful solution. You will not be able to achieve peace without the DTP."

The government says it will only engage with the DTP after the political party condemns the PKK as terrorists.

Juggling the desires of a nation

The tough stance of the government has to be understood in terms of the difficult balancing act facing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's center-right party, said political scientist Nuray Mert.

"Center-right wing parties have always been uneasy coalitions, uneasy alliances of all kinds of people," Mert said.

It was difficult to balance the demands of the Kurdish regions in the Southeast with those of the central areas that are more defined by feelings of Turkish nationalism, Mert said.

The role played by the president

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks on during a meeting with Chief of Staff Gen. Yasar Buyukanit and other top military commanders at headquarters of the Turkish armed forces in Ankara
Erdogan recently said there was a historic opportunity to end the conflictImage: AP

Turkish President Abdullah Gul is seen as key to breaking the deadlock. Last month Gul said ending the conflict was Turkey's number one priority. As president he is not constrained by party politics.

In a ground breaking move he recently met with the leader of the DTP Ahmet Turk. But it is the government that will ultimately have to bite the bullet on politically contentious reforms such as an amnesty for PKK rebels.

Abdurrahman Kurt, Kurdish deputy for the ruling AK party acknowledged it will be a hard sell both for the country and his party.

"At first you have to prepare the base, and this is not just in this region," Kurt said. "You have to prepare the west part of Turkey at the same time and you have to make clear the importance of the amnesty; why we need this amnesty and the importance of solving this problem."

For the government to face up to politically explosive issues like an amnesty and talk with its country's main Kurdish party are seen by observers as key tests of its commitment to ending the 25 year conflict.

The political and economic rewards of achieving peace would be huge, but as Prime Minister Erdogan is well aware, so are the risks.

Dorian Jones/sjt
Editor: Trinity Hartman